Daystar University celebrates Prof Talitwala, a witness of love, faith

Prof Stephen Talitwala

Prof Stephen Talitwala. He was the founding Vice-Chancellor of Daystar University.

A unique piece of history was made at Athi River last Monday, April 24, 2023. Professor Stephen Talitwala, the founding Vice-Chancellor of Daystar University, was interred at a specially designated “Heroes’ Acre” on the university’s main campus. To say that it was a solemn and moving ceremony would be an outrageous understatement.

Do you know of any other university campus in Kenya or anywhere else in East Africa with such sacrosanct space on it, and with a Vice-Chancellor Emeritus buried in it? That is unique, as far as I know, and I wonder if our other universities will emulate it. Another question, however, is how many of our Vice-Chancellors and other academic leaders, current or otherwise, would deserve the honour of resting in our heroic spaces.

Though admittedly not an impartial judge, I believe that Prof Talitwala is one of the most deserving of these posthumous honours in our academic community. It may, of course, sound superfluous to sing praises to a person whose achievements stand monumentally solid and tall in not only Nairobi, Athi River and Mombasa, in the form of glittering Daystar campuses, but also all over the country, the region and the continent in the squads of fine professionals those campuses have produced. Yet none of these achievements, most of them directly attributable to Prof Talitwala’s efforts at Daystar over the better part of half a century, can be taken for granted.

As I usually do when I write about individuals, I should declare my humble personal interest in Prof Talitwala and his career. Though we both originate from fairly close neighbourhoods in the hinterland of the Nile, I did not get to meet Prof Talitwala until he joined Daystar Communications in 1979. Daystar had offered me and my family our first livelihood in Kenya, when Talitwala’s predecessor, Dr Don Smith, hired my wife at their offices at Valley Road, while I was still looking for a job.

Daystar Communications was a fairly small outfit then, but the focus and vision of its founders and managers was unmistakable. These people were obviously missionaries, but without the fanfare of claiming to be a “church” or arrogating to themselves the fanciful titles so common in today’s new-fangled improvisations. Then, as now, Daystar identified itself as Christian but emphatically non-denominational, in other words, “mere Christian”, seeking to understand and share or communicate the essential message without the historical and other encumbrances that divide believers.

Anyway, for us then-newly arrived fugitives from Idi Amin’s terror, Daystar provided what we needed most, a sense of community, of familyhood, which were characteristic of the work and social setup at Daystar. Soon, we became regular visitors and attendants at the frequent gatherings not only at the offices but also in the homes of the senior members of the Institute. Even long after we relocated to other occupations, we still cherished a sense of belonging to the Daystar community. Even after I joined Kenyatta University, I remember conducting a brief writing course for a group of Daystar trainees, at the invitation of then-Dr Talitwala.

Have you ever wondered if I had role models? Well, Prof Talitwala was always one of them. Yet the more I tried to model myself on him, the more I realised what an inimitable giant he was. You know, for example, how loudly I boast about my “Kenyaphilia” (the Kenyan lovebug). But will I ever come anywhere near the passion with which Prof embraced this land of his adoption? It is no exaggeration to say that Prof Talitwala was a Kenyan all his adult life.

Unlike some of us part-timers, Prof Talitwala seems to have chosen Kenya as home from the moment he enrolled at the then-University College Nairobi for his Mechanical Engineering degree in the 1960s. Apart from his sojourns in Britain for his graduate studies and a brief lecturing spell at Makerere, Talitwala resided and worked in Kenya, establishing deep and intimate family roots in the process. Laying him to rest in Kenya, and especially in Ukambani, is acknowledging a fait accompli.

Back to the broad perspective, however, four qualities, I think, made Prof Talitwala the exceptional person that he was to those who knew him and to the university with which he will always be associated. These were his faith, his humility, his commitment and his generosity. We cannot elaborate here on how all these sterling qualities operated in this scholar and star academic administrator and innovator. The many eulogies we have heard touched on them in various ways.

Briefly, however, it is instructive for us that, Talitwala, a brilliant scientist going through university in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, kept his Christian faith intact. Those were years when our mostly Western teachers were either decadent hedonists and atheists or fiery socialists and communists, with little patience with spirituality. A significant number of those at Leeds, where Talitwala did his doctoral studies, were of the latter type. My own Professor, Arnold Kettle, who had been eminent there, had acted as Secretary General of the British Communist Party, before he came to teach me in Dar. Keeping one’s faith alive, as Talitwala did, in such company was no easy matter.

Finally, in these days of high-handed “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, maths), which would probably be glad to see the Humanities or liberal studies wiped off the academic map, we have to laud people like Talitwala and his fellow founders of Daystar University. I note that the university still identifies itself as a “Christian liberal arts university”. In view of the very rich variety of disciplines currently offered at Daystar, including those at the School of Science, Engineering and Health, it is obvious that the liberal studies vision did not and should not exclude scientific study and skills.

Prof Talitwala will certainly rest in peace if his successors keep promoting that vision and practice of a balanced scientific and humanitarian education.

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]


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